We were all snuggled up on the sofa yesterday afternoon watching the new BBC program Africa. It is an amazing program with brilliant footage of the African landscape and its inhabitants. If you watched this weeks episode, you probably know where I'm going with this, but there was a group of elephants trawling through the dusty Savannah and they were struggling due to the lack of water and foliage. One of the very young elephants, quite literally keeled over from exhaustion and loss of nutrition and died under it's mothers watchful gaze. It was heart breaking. I had silent tears rolling down my cheeks and as the mother walked sadly away both L and A started sobbing.
I wasn't surprised at L as he is a very sensitive soul and he is currently obsessed with animals, so I knew he would find the scene distressing. A on the other hand I was quite surprised at as she is only three and I didn't think she would understand. Having said that, it was extremely powerful and she is a sharp little cookie, so even though she has no concept of death, she could sense that all was not well.
My husband quickly jumped in as the scene changed and told the children that the elephant was OK and hadn't died and that the camera men would have helped the animal and it was fine now. He added later when they showed a different young elephant that there it was running around.
I didn't say anything at the time, but I disagreed with what he had done. I understood why he said that, his children were upset and he wanted to protect them, however, I see these rare opportunities as a good time to talk about topics that are often not discussed or that are difficult to approach. Death is such a tricky subject to broach with children. We are incredibly lucky, our family has not been affected by death so far and apart from the death of a gold fish, the children have never had to deal with it at all.
They talk about death and killing regularly; well the boys do as they act out fighting games war games both at home and at school. L in particular uses phrases when he is being over dramatic about death and dying. Like a lot of parents, we do try and shield them from TV, films and games that are we consider to be too old or inappropriate for them. On the whole, this has worked and although R who is nearly nine, does often question my judgement on this subject, he seems to accept that I make the choice in his best interest. We also tried to avoid having too many weapons and 'fighting' toys in the house, but boys will be boys and they find ways of making weapons out of any old random object from a surprisingly young age and as they migrate into boys televisions programs there is always something with fighting and monsters or bad guys being 'destroyed'.
These days, they often 'kill' each other whether it be on the Wii playing super heroes or running around shooting each other with Nerf guns, but does that really give them any concept of death and what it means? Not really. In a lot of TV and game situations, the characters get up again and everything carries on. If only it was like that in real life.
Don't get me wrong, I am hugely relieved that my children have never had to lose anyone close to them and I hope that it remains that way for a long time to come, but what happened today did make me consider when should you broach the subject with your children. Do you wait until they reach a certain age? Do you wait until someone close to them dies?
I definitely don't have any of the answers but I don't think it hurts to broach the subject when an opportunity arises. It is such a temptation to protect our children and to wrap them up in cotton wool but death happens, it is an important part of life and for me I would prefer to prepare my children for that as gently as I can before they really have to deal with it for themselves. I have always tried to be upfront with my children about things and if they ask me something outright, I always try to be as honest as I can (that has backfired on me on numerous occasions) but I look at R who will be nine in a couple of weeks and he is very mature now and understands a lot more than we probably give him credit for. It is easy to assume that children will grow up and just find out these things for themselves, but I want them to be able to talk to me about anything and everything if they want to and I also want to prepare them for real life. Bad things happen. I don't want them to have nightmares and to worry, but the good often outweighs the bad and personally I think that is a lesson we need to teach them.
R did ask me later on if the baby elephant had really died but as L was listening, I side stepped the question, rather than lie or upset L again. However if we see something like that again, I will explain to L that it is all part of the 'circle of life' as I do think he needs to understand not only what the words mean but also that when he says things like 'I want to die' or ' I wish I/he/she was dead', he actually understands the implications of what he is saying.